Ms. Patricia N. Temeching in Calabar, Nigeria
Ms. Patricia Nkweteyim Temeching narrates her personal experience as Cameroon struggles to secure its borders against the Ebola virus.
20th - 22nd August, 2014
I had been in Nigeria for twelve days on a brief academic mission. Mission completed, I was about to leave for my country Cameroon when I learnt that the borders between the two countries have been closed in a bid to prevent the spread of Ebola from spreading from Nigeria to Cameroon. This, to my mind was the right move by the government of Cameroon. But Nigeria is not my home and my leave to stay in Nigeria was only for two weeks. I made some phone calls to verify if indeed the borders were closed. The answer was yes, the borders were effectively closed. Even to Cameroonians like me wanting to return to their country? I was told I would be able to return home, but must first of all undergo medical screening and possibly be quarantined at the border. I said that too was a good thing. I would gladly submit to screening, and if necessary, to being quarantined. I felt proud that my country was up to the task in preventing Ebola from coming into my homeland.
Today I set out for the Ikom-Ekok border. The going is smooth until I arrive at the Nigerian side of the border post. The immigration officers are all carrying heavy faces. A crowd of frustrated Nigerian businessmen with their trucks of wares have been refused exit from Nigeria. The immigration officers are at pains to make the men understand that it is no use for them crossing to the Cameroonian side, where they will not be allowed to enter. The businessmen argue that they are resident in Cameroon, have their families there, and earn their livelihood there. They are finally let through. But those seeking to enter Cameroon without a prior resident permit from Cameroon immigration are categorically refused exit.
I go through Nigerian security checks and my passport is grudgingly returned to me. I walk across the bridge. The Cameroonian side of the bridge is crowded, as is the police/customs post that is perched three meters away from the end of the bridge. I join the crowd which is made up of Cameroonians like me, who are returning home from Nigeria, and Nigerians who are officially resident in Cameroon. When I inquire why there are so many people on the bridge a miserable-looking woman replies, ‘We are waiting for the medical team to screen us for Ebola before we can go into Cameroon. The frontier barrier has been destroyed.’
‘Why was the barrier destroyed?’ I ask.
‘250 people were held up at the frontier. They were frustrated because nothing was happening for four days.’
‘When is the medical team coming?’ I ask, hoping it would be in the next ten minutes at most.
‘I don’t know, madam.’
‘Where is the medical team coming from?’ I ask.
‘Mamfe, I hear. They are taking so long that as far as I know, they may be coming from Buea or even Yaounde.’
‘How long have you been waiting?’ I ask.
‘Fifteen hours. I came yesterday just after the medical team had left. They had just finished screening the two hundred and fifty people who destroyed the gate and let them through.’
‘And you have been waiting for fifteen hours?’
‘Yes. And all these people. The number has been increasing every hour.’
‘Why don’t they keep a team here to screen people as they arrive and let them through?’
‘Madam, that’s the question everyone has been asking. Imagine standing here for fifteen, twenty, thirty hours being bitten by mosquitoes, burnt by the sun and soaked in the equatorial rain. There are no toilet facilities. There is no drinking water, no bread, nothing. Nigerian security is retaliating for their business-minded citizens not being allowed to come to Cameroon. So they are not letting through any water or food.’
‘What if the medical team does not come soon?’ I ask.
‘We will just keep waiting until the day they come.’
‘Yes, the day. The people who were liberated yesterday had been grouping here for four days.’
‘Four days!’ I exclaim.
I am at a loss as to what to do. My frustration is total. I join the throng of people on the bridge and we wait and wait. Hunger and anger consume me. All I have in my travelling bag are a few clothes and my academic papers. By evening more and more people have joined us and we are all crowded on the bridge and in the small police post building, where we spend the night on our feet. The stench of urine and faeces emanating from the back of the building combines with the unhealthy sweat from two hundred unwashed bodies and leaves a nauseating sickening feeling in the air.
In the morning we receive information that the medical team will arrive soon. We are all looking forward to it. By noon nothing has happened. Instead, it is rumoured that the governor of the South West Region has given strict instructions that no car should be allowed to leave Ekok. We are still to leave the border for Ekok town. So that is the least of my worries. Get to Ekok first, then think about how to progress from there, I tell myself.
This afternoon, after I have spent 24 hours at the border post, we are allowed to trek to Ekok town. It is a trek an Ebola patient will certainly not survive. We pay boys to carry our bags. When we reach Ekok town we are bundled into an empty building with no lights, no toilet facilities and no beds. This it to be our accommodation until the medical team arrives. Finally the ‘medical team’ arrives. It is the doctor from Eyumojock. We go through the ‘screening’. This is how it happens: Eau de Javel is poured into water. We file in and wash our hands. We also wash our mouths. Then you are cleared.
Once I am cleared (at 10 p.m.), I leave the ‘quarantine’ building and go to look for a hotel. I find a run-down inn and finally crawl into a sorry-looking bed with tired sheets. After spending forty hours on my feet this bed feels like a king’s bed. I sleep the sleep of the dead.
This morning, all two hundred of us rush to the Ekok motor park. Only one bus is available to travel to Mamfe. The strongest fifteen people amongst us battle their way onto the bus. We stragglers are left waiting, in the hope that information reaches Mamfe that there are passengers waiting at Ekok. But we may as well be waiting in vain, given that the order that no vehicle be allowed to leave Ekok has not been revoked. Even that is not my biggest worry.
This is my greatest worry: What if one person among us (two hundred travellers) actually came with Ebola from Nigeria? The chances are we might all have become contaminated in the past fifty hours from being held promiscuously together, and we would now be taking the virus to two hundred different Cameroonian families.